I don’t know what age exactly you have to be to realize there is a price to pay to live in the United States of America. It varies I’m sure with different folks. And some sadly, never understand.
That’s because they don’t pay it. You don’t always pay it. Sometimes the guy next door doesn’t pay. The truth is a lot of people you know don’t pay it. But underscore these words… SOMEBODY PAYS IT!
I’m not talking money; although that’s mostly all we hear about these days. I’m talking a “real” price. Like all you’ve got! Something you cannot get back…
We’d do those book reports on George Washington and Valley Forge in the fourth grade and I didn’t understand. I just nodded and grinned and went on with my life. Ruth Ann Wiley would “report” on the Battle of Bunker Hill and I’d think, “good gosh, that was a big fight” but I was more worried about having to stand before the class when my turn came.
Every November 11th as long as I was in the McKenzie, Tennessee school system we’d march out by classes to the flagpole. A bunch of old World War I guys, some in uniform or at least wearing their old army hat, would be lined up down the sidewalk. At exactly 11:00 AM they’d fire off a small cannon, step back and salute, as the high school band played the Star-Spangled Banner.
It was a nice show and a great interlude from studying. But in the early days, I didn’t really grasp the meaning…
I knew most every grownup in our little town had fought in World War II. It seemed like a great adventure to me. I also knew a couple of widows in town that those same men went out of their way to take care of. I just thought they were being polite.
Miss Velna Gray Paschall in eighth grade history was a little more graphic. She talked about “our boys” charging up San Juan Hill. She described in detail the long, deep trenches the Doughboys dug in the Argonne Forest. She told us of the ferocity with which the American soldier had fought in the jungles of the South Pacific.
She said those men were heroes. I knew my Dad had been in New Guinea, Biak Island, the Philippines… He just never talked about it. And Mother wouldn’t let us ask questions. I raced home that afternoon and told Dad right straight up that Miss Paschall said he was a hero.
He sat there for several seconds. Like he hadn’t heard me. And then he quietly said, “Son, the real heroes didn’t come back.”
It was about this same time I saw the picture. Mother never threw anything away. It was in one of those old Life Magazines up in the attic. It was in black and white. The soldier was lying face down in the sand. One leg twisted up under him. His helmet had rolled slightly down the beach.
Someone would write poetically years later that he had given his “last full measure.” In the quiet stillness of the moment for both of us, it was the loudest picture I’ve ever seen.
My little fourteen-year=old heart woke up. Freedom wasn’t free! I owed a debt I had no way to repay. I had done nothing but take and take and take…..
I think of Ruth Ann Wiley’s book report often. Those men on Bunker Hill laid face down in the dirt and died for this country… BEFORE it became a country! George Washington was a big help, but let’s not ever forget who paid the price!
Historians still marvel at the ragtag Continental Army’s victory over the greatest fighting force on earth in the 1770s. Maybe they misread the depth of our early American soldiers’ grit. And the length some would go for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all…
It has always been thus.
We are a fortunate nation. We have forever sent the very best we have off to do our fighting for us. They don’t back up, they don’t turn around, they don’t quit.
We’ve seen it played out before our eyes in cornfields in Maryland, trenches along the “Western Front,” beaches at Guadalcanal, Normandy and Iwo Jima, rice paddies in Vietnam, deserts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m telling you, when the dust settled, it took days to count our dead!
The very least we can do is remember.
After all, it is called Memorial Day. For a very good reason…